Why do mushroom people always sound like they’re on mushrooms? Fungi are everywhere, inside us and around us — a hidden world that undergirds life on this planet — the first life on land, which made life possible for plants and animals — we are more similar to fungi than to plants — the “wood wide web” — “multicellular spiritual existence” — “enmeshed worlds” - a neglected megascience — Mushrooms are the key to the survival of humanity!!!
We went up to the Catskills last weekend to attend the For the Love of Fungi! festival. A full day of mushroom walks in the forest (delightfully called “forays” in mushroom-parlance), mushroom education talks, cooking demonstrations, inoculation demonstrations, and vendors of everything from spore print art to lions mane chocolate chip cookies. The crowd was a mix of aging hippies and forestpunk teens (piercings and pins, either heavy boots or no shoes) and people with mushroom pun T-shirts. Everyone seemed to know each other, in that loosely connected but enthusiastic way of people with a shared passion, and I felt a little shy, a bit of an interloper at first, but it was so easy to start conversations as I headed out on my first foray along one of the trails of the Ashokan Center.
It was a hot hot day but I immediately felt better when we entered the forest. That’s what trees do of course — catch whatever’s coming from the sky before it falls on us and create a kind of home for all of us animals who would like things a little less extreme. John Michelotti, the founder of Catskill Fungi and our guide for the afternoon walk, is a clean-cut charismatic guy-next-door you could picture in a suit, but who moved with a rock-climber’s grace as he scrambled down hillsides to show us specimens. He stopped us just inside the forest to discuss mushroom hunting protocol and invite us to take a moment of silence before going further. It was a nod to an indigenous practice of paying respect and also an opportunity to “sync up” with the forest in order to start noticing more. I liked the idea of a conscious syncing up to something quieter and more still.
Walking through the woods with mushroom people is staggeringly slow. We couldn’t go more than a few paces without someone hollering, “I found something!” We pushed through the underbrush to look. It was chicken-of-the-woods — a bright yellow and orange streaked mass that looks like the ruffles of a tutu — or a brown birch bolete — a canonical mushroom shape, with no gills under the cap. John told us to use the trees as clues about what mushrooms might be around. Certain fungi like to associate with certain trees. Porcini and pine, morels and elm. In mycorrhizal relationships (there are other types of relationships as well), the trees supply the fungi with sugar and fat they’ve created through photosynthesis, and the fungi scavenge water and minerals to share with the tree, creating a metabolic balance that keeps both alive. This exchange happens underground, where the roots of the tree mingle with the fungus’ hyphae (thin branching fibers that grow faster and longer than roots), with hyphae sometimes reaching all the way into the roots and plant cells. Some scientists have gone so far as to say, “plants don’t have roots…they have fungus-roots,” referencing the fact that mycorrhizal fungi existed before roots and essentially did their job for millions of years. Still today, almost all plant species depend on fungi, and certain mushrooms (the fancy ones, like truffles and chanterelles) can’t be cultivated without their tree partners. The boundary of a body becomes blurred when two organisms are so dependent on one another.
I left the walk early, because I had no signal in the forest and wouldn’t know if Anthony and my friends were dealing with a baby gone demonic with hunger after not eating for two hours. You could say that we exist in a parasitic relationship, because he feeds off me and doesn’t give anything back. Or, as Merlin Sheldrake* put it when describing the monotropa plant, which doesn’t photosynthesize and depends on fungi for all its nutrition, — “just the extreme pole of a symbiotic continuum.” Understandings of competition versus cooperation become complicated when you look at a whole forest. Though some relationships function as a 1:1 exchange, others don’t fit as neatly into that paradigm. Certain behaviors seem altruistic, like the way a healthy tree will share nutrients with a weaker one, though if you consider what’s happening from the fungal network’s perspective, shifting nutrients around based on need is just the best way to keep all the fungus’ partners alive. Often, we don’t know what all the organisms are getting out of their relationships because the whole thing is too complex to be replicated in a lab.
Mushroom people love to apply metaphors of networks and mutualism to their relationships with each other. Some of the people I met describe themselves as anti-capitalist and see free knowledge sharing as a political act. Others participate in citizen science projects that can only be done at scale, like documenting climate change or discovering new types of fungus for mycoremediation. People who love quiet and the woods are often introverts, but here almost everyone wanted to connect. I left the festival with a bunch of new instagram friends, a toilet paper roll stuffed with blue oyster mycelium, and tickets to a 4-course mushroom dinner at Collar City Mushrooms in August. I joined the NY Mycological Society when I got back home, and am hoping to get more deeply connected to these friendly, enthusiastic mushroom people.
A friend told me recently that they appreciate how I “give back” through my participation in various communities, which made me blush and protest even though it’s something I try to put work into. I like better to think of our ability to give as located somewhere along a “symbiotic continuum.” It changes all the time. Sometimes I feel isolated and useless, especially lately when baby care prevents me from taking on the work I want to. And sometimes I’m so enmeshed in the world that I can feel all of my connections like physical fibers sprouting out to touch the people and things I care about, and I don’t have to question whether I’m giving enough because I’m not so concerned about “me” versus “them.” It’s this mushroom brain that I want to cultivate in myself and in Miro as he is gradually stitched into the world.
If you’re interested, here are some mushroom people to follow:
@catskillfungi — sells tinctures and has events and walks with John Michelotti
@collar_city_mushrooms — a shop located in Troy, NY that sells mushrooms and growing kits
* Most of the mushroom facts here are from Merlin Sheldrake’s book, Entangled Life
What I’m Cooking
Crispy Lion Sandwich
Mushrooms of course ;)
Lion’s mane mushrooms were kind of a revelation to me, because their texture is closer to chicken than any wheat gluten or pea protein factory-made concoction I’ve tasted. Cooking them in big pieces is the best way to enjoy the texture, and a layer of crispy fried panko on the outside makes it even more fun.
I sent out the recipe to everyone for free on Friday, but if you want recipes like this every week (I have a feeling there will be many more mushrooms coming up), please become a paid subscriber!